Sound Checks

Apparently Conn is a madman onstage -- does the hardworking James Brown sweating thing and actually pours his soul into the music. Should be a blast. I'll be there, front-and-center. (RR)

Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band
Wed. March 31; Mississippi Nights

Here's what you're likely to see: Six men, dressed as if for a winter funeral, moving around a single microphone in a balletic bob-and-weave, each raising his instrument for a whip-crack solo, then ducking back, then leaning forward to offer mathematically exact harmony before the whole dance starts again. Witnessing the ritual of old-time bluegrass onstage, the mind-blowing, in-the-pocket playing, is a heady experience. Del McCoury has been making bluegrass this way for four decades, developing his style under the wing of Bill Monroe during the '50s and '60s and then, as a leader, looking to sons Ronnie and Rob to keep the material fresh -- the band has brilliantly covered Tom Petty and Robert Cray -- and the arrangements risky.

With his surly independence and trenchant anti-institutionalism (not to mention his leftist politics and lyrical obsession with Lucifer), Steve Earle will never really fit into the bluegrass world. Likewise, it's a rare (bordering on heretical) thing for a musician, even one of Earle's caliber, to turn, willy-nilly, to bluegrass. Like jazz or classical music, bluegrass requires a long apprenticeship, usually starting in childhood, and leaders only emerge after decades of dues. And so Earle's recent collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, one of the most significant and tradition-conscious ensembles in the biz, works both ways. Earle draws on the incipient radicalism of bluegrass -- the way it rejects fads, fashion and lazy liberalism and instead celebrates, much as the blues does, the stories of rural working people -- while the McCourys draw on Earle's thirst for musical change and the pleasure of unpolished edges. The album they've made together, The Mountain, bristles with that push-and-pull of maverick emotion and intensely focused musicianship. Now, it's not clear whether the acoustics and crowd noise of Mississippi Nights will allow this dynamic to take off onstage, but I bet you'll want to find out for yourself. (RK)

Contributors: Roy Kasten, Randall Roberts

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